Use Food Plots for Success in the Pines
November 23, 2016
Last week, we took a look at some scouting tips in To Hunt in the Pines, You Need This Specific Approach. Now, we'll switch things up just a little bit in Part II.
Many factors affect where a whitetail wants to live. But in my view, food is the most important. In fact, it's so important I'm going to devote this finale of our series on pine plantations to this part of the habitat equation.
As we all know, a vast number of articles on food plots have been written over the years: so many that I shouldn't have to even include anything on planting them. Unfortunately, some people are either intimidated by the thought of developing plots for deer or simply don't know how.
The problem with planting food plots, especially in a pine plantation, is that most hunters do it wrong. What happened on my first hunting club in Georgia is a great example of that.
Around 25 years ago, when the guys there introduced me to planting what they called "food plots," I had no idea what that term even meant. I'd always gone out into the big woods and found natural food sources to hunt over.
Sitting in a predetermined spot and planting forage to get the deer to come to me was like something from another planet. So I simply followed along and helped out while the guys had workdays planting.I helped them clear brush, turn the ground and throw down a bunch of lime, fertilizer and seed.
A few months later, I sat on opening day of rifle season over the most beautiful patch of green you'd ever want to see amidst a sea of pines . . . and saw not a single deer.
How could this have happened? At the time, food plots were a new idea. The guys in that club had heard of them, but they didn't know anything about what whitetails actually eat. So they'd planted fescue. That would have been great, had we been hunting cattle, but deer don't want to eat fescue.
So that was Lesson No. 1 on food plots: Plant what deer actually eat! I'm a fast learner (after a mistake is made), so I spent the next couple years finding out what deer do and don't eat. When I planted a plot, I wanted to know there was a good chance they would eat what was there.
And sometimes they did. But my results still were less than ideal. It was time for my second lesson.
I planted several plots that started out growing perfectly, but when they reached about 3 inches in height, they turned yellow and died. And so, the second lesson was learned: Get a soil test. When my plot died, I did some research and found our soil to be naturally acidic, especially in a pine plantation.
Without a soil test, I was wasting a lot of time and money on fertilizer and seed. Without a higher pH level, the plants couldn't extract the nutrients they needed from the soil.
Alabama-based Whitetail Institute of North America was among the first to get involved in food plot research and development, and it offers simple-to-understand soil testing and free consultations over the phone.
You even can get free seed samples. So in my view, there's no reason not to go to the institute's website to sign up for its free online publication.
Lesson No. 3 was learned after I put a plot in a freshly logged opening. The deer devoured all of it before the season even opened, because it was the only food around.
So what was the lesson learned? Deer eat a lot! On a property with a normal deer density, ideally you'll have at least 5 percent of the area in food plots. On a 1,000-acre pine plantation, that's obviously 50 acres. If your club has 20-25 members willing to spend the money and do the work, this is manageable.
The key is to spread small plots out around the property, preferably near water sources and no more than a few hundred yards from good bedding cover. Don't plant them too close to property lines, or hunters on adjoining tracts will largely benefit from your hard work.
If you anticipate a lot of deer pressure on the new plots, consider using portable electric fencing around them until they've had time to grow a sufficient amount. Remove the fencing just before the season opens — and get ready.
Lesson No. 4 became clear when I realized deer visited my food plot only at night. What I learned was that you have to plant in the right locations. If a deer must bed a half-mile from its feeding area, by the time it gets out of its bed, stretches, moves around a little, gets a drink of water and reaches the food plot, it's generally after dark.
As mentioned in Part 1, if you lack a nearby water source, create one with a "kiddie" pool or some other type of water system. Even if you don't have ideal bedding cover, you can create sanctuaries near your plots just by staying out of those areas, similar to what happened on my Georgia club.
Everybody hunted from the same stands year after year and never bothered to even scout elsewhere. Just make sure you have a way to access your stands so deer can't see you or smell you when you arrive or leave.
Lesson No. 5 came when I planted plots without regard to sunlight. Some burned up in the sun; others never really grew at all, due to too much shade. In the South, where most pine plantations are, if you plant during the spring in an area that receives full sun all day long, you're asking for a disaster to happen. Unless you have an irrigation system, your plot will dry out and all of your plants will die.
An exception to this is when planting seeds designed to grow during cool weather. These are typically referred to as fall food plots, and they can be planted from late August to the middle of October, depending upon your location.In autumn it typically rains a little more in most areas, and it's not so darned hot, so your plants can survive.
Save those full-sun areas for fall planting. You can get some good hunting over them, and they'll continue to feed your deer through winter, when the does are carrying fawns and the bucks are recuperating from the rut. Having available food during winter and early spring entices the deer to include your property as part of their home range.
How do you get 5 percent of the property planted when the land manager is trying to make a profit off every inch of space by growing trees? By being creative. Plant powerline right of ways, fire lanes and logging roads that crisscross the land.
In total, these untimbered areas give you a vast amount of space to put food plots in — as long as all of the people hunting the property can refrain from driving vehicles through them.
Plant the roads that run at least roughly north-south and use the east-west roads for access. Why not plant the latter roads? Because one running east-west through a pine plantation is practically always in the shade. Such roads are narrow, and the densely planted trees block out most of the sunlight.
On the other hand, north-south roads are in the shade for much of the morning but receive full sun during the middle of the day. In late afternoon, when daytime temperatures are usually highest, the roads are back in the shade again, reducing damage from heat and dryness.
Keep in mind that deer are browsers, not grazers. Even if a fire lane or road is narrow, when a deer crosses it and there's desirable forage planted, chances are the animal will stop for at least a bite or two. That gives a hunter set up on the spot an opportunity to size up the deer and take a standing shot.
Another area that can be planted is what's called a "log landing." This is a place where logs were loaded onto trucks for transport. The hunting club's camping area is usually located on one of these and near the main access road, but on a large timber property you'll probably find several smaller ones scattered throughout.
Be prepared to disk the soil quite a bit before planting, as a landing has usually been packed down pretty well. On the positive side, such spots typically receive full sun, which makes them good for cool-season plantings.
A land manager's job is to make a profit from that property, whether it's a private landowner or a major corporation. Believe it or not, the lease fee hunting clubs pay is generally more profitable for a land manager than are the trees themselves.
If you figure what the cost of your lease is, per acre, over a period of 30 years while those trees are growing, your lease not only provides a tremendous profit for the landowner but an annual cash flow that pays for taxes, spraying, thinning and other expenses while watching the trees grow.
Why do I bring this up? Because many land managers recognize that good hunters bring real value and are worth keeping around. Thus, if asked, they sometimes will set aside several places around the property for food plots.
Some will charge you for doing this, but others realize the value you bring and will do it for free — especially if you pick the right areas to set aside. Look for a spot in which the trees are stunted or where beetles have killed a patch of trees and ask the land manager to clear it for you.
The manager might charge you a fee to cover the cost of hauling in the equipment and paying an employee to do the work. But if someone in your club has access to the right equipment, many managers will simply allow you to do the work instead. Whatever you do, have the land manager clearly mark the area that can be cleared — and don't touch another tree!
If you have a recent clearcut to work with, look for areas near bedding cover and above hardwood creek bottoms. Ask the manager to set them aside for you. In this case, you'll probably have to pay a little extra, but it might be worth it to your club, especially if the cost is divided up among the members.
For example, if you must pay $100 per acre per year for five plots of two acres each, that will add another $1,000 to your annual lease. But when you figure that cost into a 1,000-acre lease split among 10 to 20 people, it's not that much extra.
And the hunting benefits from having quality food plots can be great, especially in those first 10 years when everything around the plots is huge thickets of young pines and regrowth.
With so many places in North America allowing hunters to bait deer, why bother to plant? First is simple economics. It takes money to buy the feeders, timer batteries and the corn or protein pellets to keep them full all season. If you're leasing a property several hours from home, it can be difficult and costly to keep those feeders running.
According to Steve Scott at the Whitetail Institute, the protein level needed for an adult deer to maintain its body is 6-10 percent. Lactating does and fawns need 16-20 percent, and bucks require 15-16 percent for full antler development.
Corn, which most people use when feeding deer, has a protein concentration of only 5-8 percent: barely what's needed for the body's maintenance requirements.
Food plots provide much higher protein, along with many other nutrients whitetails need. When you combine the health benefits of good fall plots with the fact they'll continue to grow and draw deer for most (if not all) of hunting season, it makes perfect sense to plant where you can. That's true even if you're also using feeders to help meet seasonal nutritional needs.
Again, I didn't know anything about food plots until I started getting information and advice from the institute. Since I began applying that information to my own pine plantation, it's made a huge, positive difference in my deer-hunting results.
As discussed last month, in 2015 I shot a buck called "Big Ten" two hours before dark, while he was standing in the middle of a food plot surrounded by pines. To that point he hadn't even been documented on a game camera on my property for two years. Even so, he walked into my plot and ended up getting a free ride to the taxidermist.
I don't believe this buck spent much time at all on my land. But during the rut last season he showed up, because I had the habitat ingredients — food, water and shelter — to attract and hold other deer in the area. He strolled through looking for one of the many fat does that call my pine plantation home.